While the open-source crowd gets (rightly) excited by Linux's growing market share, three companies are pulling the rug out from under the feet of traditional operating systems.
Red Hat is winning in Linux while IBM cleans up the Unix market. But those are increasingly yesterday's markets as Microsoft, Google, and VMware create different breeds of operating system, each tuned to the strength of its product portfolio.
The easiest to understand are Google and VMware. Google, with its Linux distribution Chrome OS, is placing secondary emphasis on the operating system and primary emphasis on where it takes you: the Web. Given Google's strength in cloud computing, this makes perfect sense. Google needs an operating system just long enough to move users "off" their personal computers (or mobile phones, for which Google has developed Android) and into its cloud services: Google Apps, Search, Wave, etc.
While Google won't find this strategy to be easy, it has the brand and expertise to bring "desktop" substance to cloud applications.
Similarly, VMware's vSphere attempts to untether computing from "desktops" and on-premises servers. VMware describes vSphere as:
...the industry's first cloud operating system, transforming IT infrastructures into a private cloud--a collection of internal clouds federated on-demand to external clouds--delivering IT infrastructure as a service.
VMware recently acquired open-source Java leader SpringSource to complement this strategy, giving developers an easy way to build, deploy, and manage Java-based applications for vSphere (and beyond). With Java applications already running at full steam in vSphere, this move should serve to heighten the value of vSphere.
And then there's Microsoft. The company prints billions of dollars worth of profits each quarter from its Windows franchise, yet for years it has been quietly developing its next big operating system. And no, I'm not referring to Windows 7.
With Windows under fire from VMware in virtualization (though Gartner thinks Microsoft stands to gain on VMware) and from Google in Web-based applications, Microsoft has created a bridge "between personal productivity and line-of-business applications," one that stitches together Microsoft's "desktop" dominance with its cloud ambitions.
It's called SharePoint, and with over 100 million seats and $1 billion in revenue, the odds are that your company already has it installed.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer long ago declared that "SharePoint is the definitive operating system or platform for the middle tier," and I don't think he's using the term "operating system" lightly.
Increasingly, SharePoint is the center of the Microsoft universe, at least, for enterprise computing. SharePoint serves as the hub for Microsoft's suite of operating systems, applications, and third-party software. It is a content application server, of sorts, one that provides the platform upon which so much of Microsoft's value is now being built.
I've disparaged SharePoint in the past for its tendency to lock customers into its proprietary repository. But let's be clear: a large number of companies seem perfectly happy to make that trade-off and are actively using SharePoint at the heart of their intranets, extranets, and Web sites.
Between Microsoft SharePoint, Google Chrome OS, and VMware vSphere, we're in for real innovation in what "operating system" means. While this shift will take awhile, leaving traditional vendors plenty of time to make money in traditional operating systems--hey, companies are still making money in green-screen software--the future of the operating system is almost certain to look different from vanilla Windows, Linux, or Unix.
Disclosure: My company, Alfresco, offers an open-source content application server that has been positioned in the past as directly competitive with SharePoint.
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